- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

Old friends are the ones who knew you when, who embrace the skeletons in your closet, and who seeyour best self even when you are at your worst.
Even when you wish they'd go away, there they are.
The yin and yang of enduring friendships is explored with a piercing, true ache in Stephen Sondheim's 1981 musical "Merrily We Roll Along," which has been revived with a pure heart and infectious dynamism by director Christopher Ashley. Mr, Ashley also directed the marvelously clean and direct production of "Sweeney Todd" that knocked out audiences earlier in the Sondheim Celebration.
"Merrily" is another one of Mr. Sondheim's musical puzzles that can confound many a director. Some theater folk just give up and say this musical is better off done as a concert version instead of a full-blown production. Even the show's premiere was notorious the staging featured a young cast of unknowns (among the up and comings were Jason Alexander, Tonya Pinkens, Giancarlo Esposito, and Liz Callaway) clad in shirts that bore the names of their characters. The show only ran 16 performances, as audiences and critics loathed the staging, loved the music.
Many of these problems have been deftly dealt with in Mr. Ashley's production. For starters, the opening scene that take place at Franklin Shepard's (Michael Hayden) 25th high school reunion has thankfully been excised as has the play's closing scene at the same high school a quarter-century before. These bookend moments bogged down the show and made it terribly obvious that "Merrily" is about the crushing of youthful ideals amid the volcanic changes that took place in America from the mid-'50s to the end of the 1970s.
Instead, this "Merrily" begins in 1979, at a glossily fake Hollywood party given by Franklin and his wife Gussie (Emily Skinner), a rapidly dimming Broadway star. Frank was an immensely talented Broadway composer who, with his lyricist Charley Kringas (Raul Esparza), was going to revolutionize popular music. Instead, Frank fell in love with success and notoriety compromising his genius to make a killing in the movies. He is surrounded by the "movers and shapers," the blank and the beautiful and by all appearances he is a smash, as told in the song "That Frank."
By giving up on his dreams, Frank has become as transparent as the madly drinking and disco-ing guests at his party a fact that does not escape his old friend Mary Flynn (Miriam Shor), a drama critic and writer who swills vodka and spits out bitter bon mots in the style of Dorothy Parker. A drunken Mary confronts Frank about his inauthentic life and the destruction of his friendship with Charley, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and gets thrown out of the house. Another friendship gone.
"Merrily We Roll Along" moves backward, taking us through the years leading up to Frank's midlife crisis. We get to see what led up to these three close friends giving up on each other and how they moved from youthful optimism to the suffocating compromises they chalk up to "growing up."
Mr. Ashley has pared down the musical, which is based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, combining scenes that once were confusing. Through luscious music and tart dialogue, we experience the trajectory of time as the three friends make choices and live the life they are doled, rather than living their dreams.
One extraordinary scene takes place in 1973, documenting the final showdown between Frank and Charley. They are booked on a talk show, supposedly to talk about their next theater collaboration. However, Charley finds out by mistake that Frank has signed a three-picture deal and is going Hollywood. Mary, as usual, acts as the peacemaker, pleading in the poignant song "Old Friends" that she wants things to be the way they were and the way they never were.
Charley, however, is on a tear a brilliant, neurotic tear, as expressed in "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," where Charley spews out years of vitriol to the shock and delight of the television audience. Raul Esparza rightfully received an extended round of applause for this number, in which he switches personalities and voices with lightning speed as he goes on a dizzying diatribe about the hangers-on and phalanx of lawyers, agents and bankers that distract he and Frank from writing music. Mr. Esparza makes fidgeting and frustration an art form.
His gift for physical goofiness is also apparent in the 1968 scene, where the three are giddy with Frank's success as a recording executive and launch into an exuberant "Old Friends," complete with some nifty soft shoe work and bits with hats. Mr. Esparza is clearly a nervous nutbut a cuddly oneand he is ably matched with Miss Shor as the tough-talking intermediary Mary.
Mary tries so endearingly to keep up with the boys, but her heartand her not-so-secret love for Frank is just too big. Mr. Hayden, however, remains on the edge. He never really relaxes into the role and seems a bit jumpy, so in the end, he is nothing but a figurehead representing middle-aged disappointment.
Actually, there are so many other winning personalities in the show that Mr. Hayden gets lost in the shuffle. Beth (Anastasia Barzee), Frank's first wife, delivers a gut-wrenching rendition of "Not A Day Goes By" on the front steps of the courthouse in 1966, the day their divorce becomes final. In the later scenes, where we see them meet and fall in love, Miss Barzee glows with enthusiasm and zest for life.
Two other dynamo characters are Joe Josephson (Adam Heller), a Broadway big shot producer, and Gussie (Emily Skinner), his former secretary and current wife. Mr. Heller portrays Joe as so sharp and tender you can't help but follow him from down-and-out to the toast of Broadway. The same goes for the electrifying Miss Skinner as the gutsy, mouthy, over-the-top Gussie, who sees what she wants (fame and Frank) and unabashedly goes for it. Miss Skinner is like something out of the grand opera every emotion blown sky-high, every song delivered as if it is her last and God bless her for it.
With performances like these and excellent support from an ensemble that includes the terrific Jason Gilbert, Sherry Edelen, Peggy Yates and Thursday Farrar it is no wonder that Mr. Hayden doesn't make more of an impression. But in a show as busy and involved as this, you gotta get in there and stake a claim.
By shifting the emphasis away from the three friends exclusively, this production of "Merrily" is the cleanest and easiest to follow yet. The falling apart of the central trio is indeed tragic, but it is also intriguing to chart the lives of Joe, Gussie, the newscaster who follows Frank's career (played by Miss Farrar), Frank's agent (Miss Edelen) and the scores of other people who collide with Frank, Charley and Mary.
However, the last scene belongs to them. Set in 1957, the three stand on a rooftop in Manhattan at dawn to catch a glimpse of Sputnik. The three vibrate with hopes, dreams and ideas that are going to change the world. Your heart breaks as they sing the stirring "Our Time," because you know what is to come.
But for a brief, aching moment, they are young astonishingly young and poised on the brink of greatness. The years have yet to weight them, do their mischief. Is there anything more beautiful than promise?

****
WHAT: "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim
WHEN: Through Aug. 24/Playing in repertory with
"Passion" and "A Little Night Music"
WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
TICKETS: $20-$79
PHONE: (202)467-4600
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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